Brazil’s First Female President Has Just Been Suspended, And The New Cabinet Is All Men

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MARY ALTAFFER
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MARY ALTAFFER

On Thursday, Brazil’s Senate voted after an all-night debate to suspend President Dilma Rousseff and begin an impeachment trial. Rousseff, the country’s first female president, has been replaced by Vice President Michel Temer, who immediately unveiled a new cabinet entirely devoid of women or people of color.

Although Brazil is hardly a leader when it comes to female representation — women are less than 10 percent of lawmakers — — Temer’s cabinet marks a decided step back in representation for the country. Brazil has more female than male voters, and in a 2010 census, 50.7 percent of Brazilians defined themselves as black or mixed race.

The last time that Brazil’s cabinet lacked female representation was in 1979; Temer’s cabinet is the first since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship to be all male.

Temer’s all-male cabinet is yet another troubling sign for Brazil’s women in an impeachment campaign that many say is colored heavily by sexism.


When Brazil’s lower chamber voted to impeach Rousseff in April, dozens held up signs reading “bye, dear.” Wire-taps released in March revealed top politicians using sexist and vulgar language to describe women — including Rousseff, whom the mayor of Rio de Janeiro mocked as dour in one of the taped conversations.

Media coverage has echoed this gendered representation — drawing on familiar tropes levied at powerful women to paint Rousseff as unfeminine, abrasive, and hysterical.

By contrast, a glowing profile in one of Brazil’s prominent magazines of Michel Temer’s wife — Brazil’s presumptive first lady — seemed designed to highlight her as the paragon of traditional femininity in direct contrast to Rousseff, a former militant who fought against and was tortured by Brazil’s military dictatorship. Mrs. Temer, a former beauty queen 43 years her husband’s junior, was described in the headline as “beautiful, maidenlike, and ‘a housewife.’”

The piece sparked a viral social media backlash, with women both pushing back against and tweeting in support of the implications of ‘model’ femininity.

When asked about what role her gender has played in her impeachment, Rousseff openly called the proceedings sexist.

“There has been, mixed in all of this, a large amount of prejudice against women,” Rousseff said at a news conference last month, as reported by Reuters. “There are attitudes toward me that there would not be with a male president.”


In March, the United Nations office on women’s rights in Brazil issued a statement condemning the movement against Rousseff.

“As a defender of women’s and girls’ rights around the world, UN Women condemns all forms of violence against women, including the political violence of a sexist nature directed against President Dilma Rousseff,” said Nadine Gasman, head of UN Women in Brazil.

Translation: Temer’s is first cabinet since military dictatorship without women.

The charges and backlash against Rousseff are, of course, more complicated than simply sexism. Rousseff is accused of misappropriation of funds to cover budget gaps and boost confidence in Brazil’s failing economy. However, there is strong evidence of a double standard. Corruption is rife among Brazil’s politicians — including, allegedly, those leading the charge against her. Few others have faced impeachment.


Brazil’s previous two presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva each faced numerous — in some cases more serious — charges of corruption without impeachment. Michel Temer, Rousseff’s replacement, is also implicated for corruption, as are a number of men on his new cabinet. Eduardo Cunha, one of the leading voices in the push for impeachment, is currently under investigation for corruption and bribes — in contrast to Rousseff, who has never been accused of padding her own pockets.

Rousseff’s impeachment comes at a critical time for Brazil, which in addition to the burgeoning corruption scandal, is mired in a debilitating economic depression, increased scrutiny and problems ahead of the 2016 elections, and the spread of the Zika virus. Her impeachment — and Temer’s all-male cabinet — also comes at a crucial time for Brazil’s women.

In Response To Zika, Brazil Moves To Restrict Abortion Even MoreHealth by CREDIT: AP Photo, Ricardo Mazalan Despite urgent demands from global leaders to loosen abortion penalties in…thinkprogress.orgBrazil’s growing feminist movement has recently put a spotlight on violence against women, pay disparities, the lack of political representation, and abortion — particularly with the spread of Zika, which can cause serious birth defects in infected pregnant women. Despite this, some (male) lawmakers in Brazil are only fighting to make abortion restrictions tighter. In November, Cunha — one of the architects of Rousseff’s impeachment — attempted to push a bill through congress requiring women to leap through a series of onerous hoops to become “eligible” for an abortion. In Brazil, legal abortion is already restricted to cases of rape, life-threatening illness, or limited birth defects. Illegal abortions can result in jail time.

Social science also shows that Brazil’s step back in political representation may have implications for years to come. Research from around the world shows that political representation can empower younger women to seek office and think of themselves as leaders — and that overtly sexist political discrimination can discourage them.

Throughout the political firestorm, Rousseff has remained defiant. In a speech on Thursday, Rousseff called the Senate’s decision a “coup” and said she was proud to be Brazil’s first female president.

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